Category Archives: books

Book reviews and other book-related articles

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Karachi Vice by Samira Shackle

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Karachi is the largest city in Pakistan (though not its capital) and among the largest cities in the world. It is also a troubled city; and Karachi Vice tells a bit of its story through accounts of the lives of five people. Safdar is an ambulance driver for a charity called Edhi; Parveen a resident and activist from Lyari, a densely populated area fought over by rival gangs ; Siraj a map researcher whose research into water resources make him vulnerable to attack by those with, um, business interest in controlling water supplies; Jannat a woman from a village near Karachi who tells of its near-destruction because of illegal land possession by a private developer; and Zille a crime reporter who lives for the thrill of real-time reporting on notable incidents. Some names have been changed.

The book is astonishing and has the feel of authenticity since it is based on the actual experiences of these people. It is also something of a dark book, as you would expect from the title. It is a somewhat disjointed read, particularly in the first half of the book, since the various stories are interspersed; you read a chapter on one, then on another, than back to the first, and so on. There is a common thread though, and it all begins to make sense when you go back to re-read the prologue, having finished the rest of the book. There we find a timeline of major events as well as the background. Karachi, Shackle explains, “has been home to a series of complex and ever-evolving conflicts, with sectarian and ethnic resentment mingling with politics and organized crime.” The author concludes that “this is the front line of global urbanization at its most unforgiving.” It is important for all sorts of reasons, demonstrating the human cost of corruption and sectarian conflict.

The tone is measured and matter of fact though you cannot read it without feeling angry at times. One incident that I found particularly stirred my emotion was the account of the 2012 Baldia Town fire, a fire in a textile factory where “all but one exit had been locked by bosses who did not want the workers to take breaks or steal the products … anyone who made it to the front gate of the compound found it locked too.” Many lives were lost.

Karachi Vice has been a long time coming. Author Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist and editor of the New Hamanist, a rationalist quarterly. Shackle is based in London but her mother is a Karachiite. Shackle lived there between 2012 and 2013, a tumultuous period ahead of the Karachi Operation, an effort to stem the violence and crime and one that had considerable success. Shackle was also in Karachi following police patrols in 2015 and 2016 and has first-hand knowledge of incidents like those she describes. In 2018 she won a book prize enabling her to get the book deal that has enabled publication. Parts of the book have been previewed in the Guardian as long ago as 2015.

While I highly recommend Karachi Vice for anyone with an interest in world affairs, I do not find the approach of the book entirely to my taste. I preferred the Guardian pieces where the main subjects are referred to by surname rather than forename; I could have done with a bit more background; the jumping around between subjects makes things hard to follow at times.

None of that matters. Shackles tells real stories from people who get too little attention; the book is gripping, sad but also in a way inspiring, thanks to those moments when courage, love and human decency shine despite dark times.

See more reviews on Amazon UK

Carole King’s Tapestry by Loren Glass

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This title in Bloomsbury’s thoughtful 33 1/3 series is by Loren Glass, a professor of English at the University of Iowa in the USA. Writing about music is always a curious business – “dancing about architecture” –  and Glass takes a personal approach, dedicating the book to his mother and describing his memory of “the singer songwriters whose albums [she] played as I was growing up.” Tapestry was one of her favourites and Glass links it to the sexual revolution of the sixties and the feminism which followed. He observes that King favours the term “woman” over “girl” and how she sang as “the subject, not the object, of sexual experience and desire.” Tapestry, says Glass, “heralded a new, more equitable era for parents and their children.” He also writes that “the peak years of the women’s liberation movement coincide with the apogee of the long-playing album as an art form.”

There are five chapters in this short volume. One of the slightly odd things about the book is that each chapter feels almost complete in itself. The introduction is an essay in its own right. Next comes Maturity, giving the biographical background about King and her turbulent relationship with husband and lyricist Gerry Goffin. Then comes Trilogy, describing the three albums which King calls a trilogy in her autobiography: Now that everything’s been said, Writer, and Tapestry itself. Glass describes the recording of Tapestry and then gives a song by song commentary. Chapter 3 (or 4) is Celebrity, looking at King’s profile and career following Tapestry. The book closes with Legacy, looking at King’s later more retrospective career and reflecting on the significance of Tapestry today.

Glass goes over the top from time to time. ““No album before or since has been able to speak so intimately to so many for so long,” he says. And later that, “Only the Beatles have achieved this degree of cross-generational appeal … but most of us grow out of our Beatles phase while Tapestry endures.” I could do without the hyberbole; it is of course a fine album but one of the curious things is that it was James Taylor who better caught the magic of You’ve got a friend, in my opinion, and Aretha Franklin (for whom the song was written) who has the best performance of (You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman.

I enjoyed the book and learned a lot about Carole King, Tapestry, and the other albums Glass covers in some detail. I also appreciated the personal approach. On the other hand, I am not convinced the book is structured in the best way; it seems repetitive at times and I would have liked a sharper focus and more detail on the album itself, perhaps gathering together some of the fragmented commentary into a longer song-by-song analysis. Still a good read for anyone who loves this classic album.

See more reviews on Amazon.co.uk

Her Last Holiday by C L Taylor

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C L Taylor takes us into a world of needy people in this tale of discovery and self-discovery, as a woman (Fran) sets out to discover what happened to her much younger sister who went on a holiday/extended therapy session two years earlier but never returned. The official verdict was suicide but with no body discovered and the fact that the organiser of the event, Tom Wade, was imprisoned for the manslaughter of two others at the same event, there is every reason to suspect that the full story has not been told. When Wade is released and organises a new retreat, Fran attends under an assumed name, determined to find out more.

The novel is billed as a psychological thriller, the tension builds as strange and scary things occur on the retreat and you cannot figure out who is really responsible. It reminded me of one of those Agatha Christie stories where a bunch of people are all in a lovely house together, with surface politeness but all sorts of friction and emotion underneath. The desire to know more kept me turning the pages. The story is told through the eyes of three women: Fran, her missing sister Jenna, and Tom’s wife Kate. We jump back in time for the Jenna sections, with helpful chapter sub-heads saying “two years ago”. Several people on the current retreat were also at the previous one, so we gradually learn more about them from these different perspectives.

Tom and Kate pitch their holiday retreats as “soul shrink”, events for hurt people to give them a new start. We join some of the counselling sessions, and in describing these the author shows deep knowledge of the subject; they are convincingly told and make the book though-provoking in terms of the ways people damage one another (and themselves) and the somewhat dysfunctional families they belong to. There is ambiguity in the telling: are Tom and Kate charlatans making promises to their vulnerable guests that cannot be fulfilled? Or are they doing good work (manslaughter and missing person incidents aside) that really does improve the lives of others? This is deliberate and even at the close of the book, when the facts of the matter are revealed, the reader is, I believe, meant still to have questions about what is sincere and what is fake.

I love books that challenge me to do some thinking, and this is one of them. Part of me though would have liked the loose ends to be more firmly tied up; there is also an incident described in the first chapter for which we never get full resolution.

Great read though, exciting, well-written, thought-provoking and insightful.

Her Last Holiday
is published by Avon Books on 29th April 2021, ISBN 978-0008379223

Rhys Bowen: A love story for Venice

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I loved this book; if anything it is too short. It begins with Lettie, a young English girl, and her visit to Venice in 1928, accompanied by her prim and stuffy aunt, who is determined to protect her charge from anything modern or lively, and especially from interacting with strangers. Needless to say the delightfully named Aunt Hortensia’s does not altogether succeed in her endeavours and Lettie forms a brief but life-changing connection with a Venetian, leading us into a story that spans the decades, as we jump to the modern day and follow the story of Caroline, who is charged by her great aunt Lettie to visit Venice to uncover … something.

This is an easy and compelling read which I finished in one sitting. The bulk of the book concerns Lettie and her time in Venice as Europe was plunged into the tragedy of the second world war. The war is mostly at a distance but casts a shadow over everything, and author Rhys Bowen recounts some dark moments.

Reflecting on the book I am struck by how Bowen transports us to Venice, the city and its people, which in many ways is the heart of the story. She has obvious affection for this unique and wonderful place, its delicious food (if you know where to go), its beautiful works of art, its addiction to religion, and even its less savoury aspects, smells, frequent rain, and occasional “acqua alta” when the city is flooded.

The charm of the ancient and magical city more than makes up for what are perhaps slightly thin (though still likeable) characters. The only negative for me is that the ending was a little abrupt; I would have liked a little more detail about the aftermath.

No complaints though; I reviewed this book on a drab November day in lockdown and spending a few hours in Venice was a most welcome and enjoyable respite.

A Venice Sketchbook is published by Lake Union Publishing on 13th April 2021.

Cyber Privacy by April Falcon Doss

This is a book about pervasive data collection and its implications. The author, April Falcon Doss, is a lawyer who spent 13 years at the US National Security Agency (NSA), itself an organization controversial for phone-tapping and other covert surveillance practices. Disturbing though that is, one of Doss’s observations is that “in democratic countries … the government doesn’t have nearly as much data as private companies do.” She argues that government-held data is less troubling since its usage is well regulated, unlike privately held data – though these safeguards do not apply in authoritarian regimes.

Government use then is just one piece of something much bigger, the colossal amount of personal data gathered on so much of what we do, our buying habits, what we search for on the internet, our health, our location, our contacts, tastes and preferences, all tracked, stored, and used in ways that we might not expect. Most of the book simply describes what is happening, and this will be eye-opening to anyone who has not followed the growth of data collection and its use in marketing and advertising over the last twenty years or so. Doss describes how a researcher analyzed his iPhone activity and found that “within seven days, the phone had exported data via 5,400 hidden app trackers.” – and Google’s Android is even worse.

How much do we care and how much should we care? Doss looks at this question which to me is of particular interest. We like getting stuff for free, like social media, search, maps and directions; but how aware are we of hidden costs like compromised privacy and would we be willing to pay in other ways? Studies on the subject are contradictory; humans are not very logical on the matter, and it depends exactly how the trade-off between privacy and cost is presented. The tech giants know this and in general we easily succumb to the temptation to hand over personal information when signing up for free services.

Doss makes some excellent and succinct points, as when she writes that “privacy policies offer little more than a fig leaf of user notice and consent since they are cumbersome to read, difficult to understand, and individuals have few alternatives when it comes to using the major digital platforms.” She also takes aim at well-intended but ineffective cookie legislation – which have given rise to the banners you see, especially in the EU, inviting you to accept all manner of cookies when you visit a web site for the first time. “A great deal of energy and attention has gone into drafting and implementing cookie notice laws,” she says. “But it is an open question whether anyone’s privacy has actually increased.”

She also observes that we are in uncharted territory. “It turns out that all of us have been unwitting participants in a multifaceted, loosely designed program of unregulated research,” she writes.

Personally I agree that the issue is super-important and deserves more attention than it gets, so I am grateful for the book. There are a couple of issues though. One is that the reason personal data gathering has escalated so fast is that we’ve seen benefits – like free services and personalisation of advertising which reduces the amount of irrelevant material we see – but the harms are more hidden. What are the harms? Doss does identify some harms, such as reduced freedom in authoritarian regimes, or higher prices for things like Uber transport when algorithms decide what offers to show based on our willingness to pay. I would like to have seen more attention paid though to the most obvious harm of the moment, the fact that abuse of personal data and social media may have resulted in political upheavals like the election of Donald Trump as US president, or the result of the Brexit referendum in the UK. Whatever your political views, those who value democracy should be concerned; Doss gives this matter some attention but not as much as it merits, in my opinion.

Second, the big question is what can be done; and here the book is short of answers. Doss ends up arguing that we have passed the point of no return in terms of data collection. “The real challenge lies in creating sufficient restrictions to rein in the human tendency to misuse information for purposes that we’ve collectively decided are unacceptable in society,” she writes, acknowledging that how we do so remains an open question.

She says that her ambitions for the book become more modest as the research continued, ending with the hope that she has provided “a catalogue of risks and relevant questions, along with a useful framework for thinking about the future” which “may spark further, future discussions.”

Fair enough, but I would like to have seen more practical suggestions. Should we regulate more? Should Google or Facebook be broken up? As individuals, does it help if we close social media accounts and become more wary about the data that we give away?

Nevertheless I welcome this thought-provoking book and hope that it does help to stimulate the future debate for which the author hopes.

BenBella Books (3 Nov. 2020)

The Whole Truth by Cara Hunter

Set in Oxford, this crime novel continues Hunter’s series based on the cases of DI Adam Fawley. A student has accused a professor of sexual assault – and unusually, the accused is female. Separately, an old case returns to haunt Fawley and his pregnant wife Alex: a criminal whom he put away has done his time, will he attempt the revenge he swore he would exact when convicted?

It is a great read, a book which drew me in quickly and kept me absorbed. I love the fact that the author is a Colin Dexter fan who uses an anagram of Morse for the surname of one of her own fictitious detectives. The plot is full of twists, it’s super-clever, and I particularly enjoyed that last few chapters when the pieces slot into place, worked out by someone unexpected.

That said, I do have a few niggles. One is that there the two separate stories here are essentially unrelated and get almost equal attention, despite the fact that it is the incident with the professor and her student that is highlighted in the blurb and cover picture. Two plots for the price of one isn’t a bad thing, except that the second plot about Fawley’s old case is quite a bit more interesting and exciting than the one which is meant to be the main one. It’s just as well, since I doubt the book would have held my interest without it, but I do wonder if it would have been better to make this more compelling plot the main theme.

Second, I found it odd that the book is written part in first person, from Fawley’s perspective, and partly in third person. There is a bit of chronological jumping around too, but that I have no problem with. There are also illustrations featuring lots of text which are quite hard to read on a Kindle.

Still, these little annoyances did not stop me enjoying the book which was a welcome distraction in these strange days of pandemic.

Penguin. Pub Date 25 Feb 2021